Saturday, May 3, 2008

Read this novel.

The Sorrows of an American. By Siri Hustvedt.

Siri Hustvedt’s intricate and heightened novels cast a spell not only because Hustvedt is exceptionally observant and writes beautifully, or because her alluring characters are smart, sensitive, and accomplished, or because her stories are significantly complex, but rather because she perceives life’s hidden dimensions, the dark force of secrets, and the radioactivity of trauma. Preternaturally attuned to the vagaries of memory and the dangerous revelations embedded in dreams and delusions, she writes of psychological mysteries and maladies with emotional veracity and intellectual specificity. Her previous novel of family tragedy, the ravishing What I Loved (2003), featured New York artists and scholars. She returns to this milieu, even bringing along a character, art historian Leo Hertzberg, and deepens her inquiry into its spirit in this even more fluent and mesmerizing tale.

By narrating from the point of view of a psychiatrist, Erik Davidson, Hustvedt brings a professional perspective to besieged minds, although Erik’s knowledge isn’t helping all that much as he struggles for equilibrium in the wake of his divorce and his father’s death. Add to that his immersion in his father’s startlingly evocative memoir (based on a real-life source, as Hustvedt discloses in her Acknowledgements, evidence that Hustvedt’s writing skills are bred in the bone) about his poor, suffering immigrant family’s bruising hardscrabble life in unforgiving Minnesota and his scarring military service in World War II. Erik’s understanding of his past is greatly altered, and he is forced to recognize that a sensitive family mystery must be solved.

Erik’s sister, writer Inga, is even more reluctant to delve into the past. Not only is she mourning their father, she is also grieving for her late husband, a celebrity-famous novelist, a loss made all the more tortuous as a manipulative biographer and a vicious journalist root out painful truths.

Yet another unexpected set of concentric circles of pain and confusion ripple out from Erik’s involvement with his possibly endangered downstairs tenants: Miranda, a Jamaican-born artist he helplessly desires, and her young live-wire daughter, Eglantine. Like the great nineteenth-century novelists who combined riveting storytelling with incisive philosophical musings, Hustvedt has created intellectual and compassionate characters and a bewitchingly brilliant plot to explore the great chasms of human life. The Sorrows of an American illuminates with grace and insight the legacy of sorrows born of the struggles of immigrants, and the psychic wounds of war, betrayal, and unrequited love.

No comments: